Headsets are Hi-Fi Hazards

//Headsets are Hi-Fi Hazards

They are seen everywhere – phones in the ear and a faraway look in the eye. Radio and tape headsets* have become more ubiquitous than portable radios ever were.

Do they belong in the workplace?

The portability of these devices allows the individual to carry and use the units almost anywhere.

As a result, they’re showing up in the workplace. This fact suggests a review of policies that allow personal devices in the workplace. This is especially true when the hazards of radio headsets are considered.

Let’s evaluate concerns about personal radios and try to quantify one of those concerns – noise. The main controversy over personal radio headsets seems to be not over the degree of hazard to the worker while wearing them. But, the issue mainly centers on productivity of the employee wearing them and the individual rights of the worker.

Does the productivity of the worker suffer if radio headsets aren’t allowed?

Conversely, does production improve if some or all workers wear devices like these to please themselves?

The productivity aspect of these questions has been addressed before. Decades ago.

Research work on effects of environmental or situational changes on productivity in workers dates back to the ‘30’s. These studies spurred controversy over whether or not changes in the workplace actually do result in a rise in productivity. The most lucid interpretation of the studies concludes, in effect, that “when special attention is given workers (say, by enlisting them in an experimental situation) production is likely to rise – independently of changes in actual working conditions.”

The research conclusions, best known as the Hawthorne Effect, further point out that attention paid to the worker in itself was the key that incited increase in productivity. After the newness of the situation became commonplace, productivity dropped to levels established prior to workplace changes.

Now, a word on the worker and his individual rights.

*Such devices are also called tape headsets, sound headsets, personal radio headsets, and personal sound-producing devices.

Beware of the argument for the right to wear personal radios like a hat, ring, or tattoo. Remember, the employer, in determining how to establish a safe place to work, must ask the worker to cooperate by giving up certain “rights.” In the extreme, the right to walk six inch steel “I” beams on an overhead traveling crane 30 feet over the workplace must be given up.

The right to come in three hours late and intoxicated each day of the work week, and, in a lesser extreme, to use threatening language, must be given up.

In short, to behave in a way that jeopardizes oneself and co-workers is a “right” that must be waived in the workplace. So it is with personally worn, sound-producing devices.

Documented cases exist of the individual jeopardizing personal safety by wearing headsets. In one, a worker with a headset in place was walking in an area adjoining a major aisle way of a manufacturing plant. A fork truck was traveling at moderate speed, approaching the employee from the rear. The fork truck operator noted the headset on the employee, gave a warning blast with the horn, reduced his speed as a second precautionary measure, then stopped the unit just as the employee ignored the warning sound and abruptly turned into the fork truck. The injured worker suffered multiple contusions after tripping over the lowered fork truck tines. The injured person, during the investigation of the incident, stated that he simply hadn’t heard the warning sound from the fork truck over the music of his radio.

Another case involves emergency evacuation. During an unannounced fire drill, management, middle management, and production workers cleared a facility and assembled for roll-call outside. Supervisors identified all but one missing individual and returned to the employee’s work area. They found the worker carrying on with his assigned duties – oblivious to the initial fire alarm sound and the vacant plant. He was wearing a personal radio headset turned to high volume.

It seems clear, then, that personal radio headsets cause an isolating effect for people who wear them. When the volume in the headset is turned up so that exterior noises are covered, the person’s ability to pick up verbal warnings or other alarm signals is reduced. Also, spoken instructions from fellow workers or supervisors during complicated maneuvers for specific tasks can be misinterpreted – a well-established accident causal factor.

We can carry the isolating effect further. Workers maintain varying degrees of attention to design at work. All humans have some lapses of concentration for the task at hand. Employers have limited control over a person who habitually daydreams while working. Add another factor such as a personal sound headset to the work environment and the concentration of the user will be divided. An unspecified percentage of people will concentrate more on the broadcast of the headset, rather than on the work they’re expected to accomplish. Here, reduced productivity is implicated with poor concentration… and accident susceptibility increases as concentration falls.

Other potential hazards are apparent by virtue of the design of personal radio headsets. These portable devices:

– Offer no hearing protection;
– Interfere with wearing approved hearing protection;
– Can induce hearing loss;
– Interfere with wearing approved head protection;
– Introduce additional hazards.

Paradoxically, the first item, “offers no hearing protection,” has been an issue among people striving to support the use of radio headsets in the workplace. The argument is: “…radio headsets will mask unwanted sound, allowing the worker to enjoy the broadcast.” Make no mistake; none of the units on the market can reduce sound. Nor could any of these sound headsets be rated able to attenuate sound as supplemental hearing protection.

The units are not designed to attenuate interfering noise from within or beyond the range of the speakers. The speaker headsets are not designed to conform to the outer ear or to conform to adjoining portions of the skull like externally worn, acceptable hearing protection.

Interference with wearing approved hearing protection comes next. This will give you an idea of how far people want to extend the controversy.

Questions have been raised about the possibility of people wearing personal sound-producing headsets in addition to hearing protection. If an employee using a sound headset also wears hearing protection, that practice will, of course, interfere with broadcast reception. So, some employees will remove their hearing protection.

At a glance, there’s no way to monitor most plug hearing protection compliance without constant physical checks of having the worker remove the headset.

The two devices are mutually exclusive. Because they’re incompatible, one defeats the purpose of the other.

Has our dead horse been beaten thoroughly enough? I think not.

At least one specialized application of hearing protection does use headset hearing protection devices with a high NRR, or noise reduction rating. Ramp service workers for airlines, for example, commonly wear hearing protection that doubles as a communication device. The headsets, wired with speakers, allow the worker to communicate with the cockpit of the aircraft.

What I’m going to tell you next proves the ingenuity of workers.

An airline ramp service employee was discovered as having modified his externally worn, standard hearing protection. He added concealed wiring and speakers connected to a power source – a personal radio device.

As popularity of these devices increases, hearing protection enforcement will become even more challenging!

The next item, on inducing hearing loss, evolves from the surprising amount of sound generated by these relatively low-powered systems. If your workers insist on wearing portable units such as personal radio headsets, you’re not going to control the amount of noise exposure the employees experience.

A company recently curtailed the use of sound headsets by their workers shortly after a number of people started wearing them. Before exclusion of headsets from the workplace, workers were interviewed about the volume level they used. The common response was that the workers varied headset volume according to interfering noise. They simply turned up the volume when the environment got too noisy.

This only adds to the exposure problem if one works in a noisy environment to begin with.

Table I shows examples of sound level capabilities of personal radio headsets.

Unit Readings dBA (slow) Type
Brand 1 98-107.5 Self-contained radio headset
Brand 2 94-102.5 Tape player
Brand 3 96-110 AM radio
Brand 4 90-109.5 FM radio

NOTE: Tests taken with units at 100 per cent volume setting. Ambient noise 38 dBA.

Interestingly, some of the inexpensive headset units produce sound pressure at or near 110 dBA with just two AA batteries. There is, of course, a wide variation in sound levels developed by any headset unit, depending upon broadcast signal strength. Most units will exceed 90 decibels when the volume control is set at about 60 per cent of maximum. A typical range at that setting is 85 dBA to 94 dBA.

The self-contained radio headset and the speaker headset with remote power unit perform at about the same level in terms of generated pressure. Testing has shown that the spectrum of sound pressure developed by various brands provided sustained levels at 100 per cent volume of 97 dBA to 107.5 dBA.

Clearly these sound levels depend upon transmitted signal strength, distance from point of transmission, battery reserve, tape condition, and other factors. Further, exposure will vary if a radio station signal is not directly “centered.” Off-center distortion will cause a rise in exposure by one to two dBA. Obviously, some employees will use sound headsets at maximum output.

Thus, extended use of these devices in the work environment, particularly in noisy areas, will significantly increase the potential for noise-induced hearing loss.

If the information related here is used for no other purpose, consider it a reference point by which an employee’s noise level exposure is altered in the workplace. For example, if a hypothetical employer determined that the work environment produces a time-weighted average of 84 decibels at most for any individual, he could be spared from most major elements of OSHAct requirements for hearing conservation programming.

Workers in that environment change their exposure levels significantly if they wear radio headsets consistently. In conservative states administering Workers’ Compensation laws, these may not be a problem if an employee who habitually wore a radio headset registers a claim for noise-induced hearing loss if the workplace noise monitoring methods are well documented.

On the other hand, in more liberal states’ Workers’ Compensation interpretations, the worker would have the benefit of the doubt and could conceivably collect compensation for noise-induced hearing loss. This would hold true even if all parties could agree that the only significant noise exposure that could have generated the hearing loss was from a personally worn radio headset provided by the worker.

Concerns about head protection interference warrant a second look. All styles of radio headsets will interfere to a degree with wearing head protection. A hard hat or welder’s helmet will not fit over the self-contained radio headset. However, in the most popular models today, the remote speakers with spring steel headband would a person to wear headset and head protection at the same time. But, the integrity of a hard hat suspension system may be compromised with both. Therefore, sound headsets and hard hats should not be worn together.

Lastly, additional hazards associated with headsets should be examined. It’s a dangerous practice to use the remote power unit with headset, without securing the power cord. A loose cord can become entangled in machinery, causing a wrenched neck or even strangulation.

And, the non-auditory effects of noise have been established by researchers. Dr. Victor H. Hildyard, a Clinical Professor of Surgery at the University Of Colorado School Of Medicine, wrote about some of the subliminal effects. “Sounds that are unwanted and unpleasant… cause physiological changes manifested in the cardio-vascular system as an increase in blood pressure, increase in heart rate… an increase in breathing or shortness of breath, and so on.”

Dr. Hildyard also noted that people exposed to loud music in excess of 100 dBA can actually enjoy it and not suffer from the non-auditory effects, yet will conceivably suffer the auditory effects or hearing loss. In the workplace, it’s quite likely a person will suffer both, owing to the both wanted and unwanted volumes of noise, compounded by the intrusion on the unprotected ear drum by normal workplace noise and that of the personally worn headset.

We’ve looked at viable concerns on disadvantages and potential problems of personal radio headsets. Noise levels generated by them are of sufficient pressure to be involved in noise-induced hearing loss. Other concerns about the devices also affect the worker. So, agreement must be reached about one of the most important features of an employer/employee relationship. That is, the conditions under which the employee is expected to perform.

Review potential problems involved with personal radio headsets; educate the employee about them. Consider supplementing or revising company policy regarding this provision of the employee’s responsibility in the workplace – thus helping you maintain a safe place in which to work.

That policy supplement or revision you provide should exclude employee use of sound headsets at work.


Hildyard, Victor H., MD “Noise-Non-auditory Effects,” NATIONAL SAFETY NEWS, National Safety Council, 444 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 60611. Vol. 118, No.3, Sept. 1978, p.90

“Hawthorne Revisited: The Legend and the Legacy,” Organizational Dynamics, American Management Associations, AMACOM Division, 135 W. 50th St., New York 10020 Winter 1975, pps. 66-80.

Nutter, James W., “Hearing Loss – Is It Only The Tip of The Iceberg?” Professional Safety, ASSE, 850 Busse Highway, Park Ridge, IL 60068, February 1983, pps. 13-15.

Reprinted with Permission, © 1984, National Safety Council, National Safety News

2018-09-21T13:14:48+00:00By |

About the Author:

Lee J. Huber, CSP, CPE is a board-certified ergonomics and safety professional in private practice nationwide, who evaluates workplaces and conducts seminars. He is President of SS&E Consulting, Inc., based in Elk River, MN. Lee can be contacted at (763) 354-8213.